I’ve been doing some more research on the state of M*A*S*H in the late 1970s. Everything I’ve found thus far continues to point towards the final decision on the series being renewed at the end of each season resting on Alan Alda’s shoulders. This fits with everything I’ve read or heard over the years. Alda was considered the star of the series, inasmuch as an ensemble cast can have a star, and he was the only actor deemed irreplaceable.
In a June 1979 article about Gary Burghoff leaving M*A*S*H, Gary Deeb of The Chicago Tribune had this to say about the future of the hit sitcom:
With “M*A*S*H” consistently among the five most popular programs on the tube, CBS naturally hopes the show will last deep into the 1980s, but [Burt] Metcalfe realizes the program’s lifespan depends almost exclusively on how long Alda wants to remain as the star.
“So far, Alan shows no signs of wanting to quit after next season,but he does renew his contract strictly on a year-to-year basis,” Metcalfe says. “He loves doing the show because he works only six months a year, he makes an enormous amount of money, and he gets to do something he’s proud of. He’s a brilliant man and a lovely guy.”
Some seven months later, Deeb reported that M*A*S*H would be returning on CBS for the 1980-1981 season, its ninth:
The best comedy series in TV history almost certainly will remain on the air for another season of new episodes. “M*A*S*H,” the Korean war comedy-drama, is expected to be around next September for its ninth season as a mainstay of the CBS program lineup. The whole ball of wax hinges on the whim of series star Alan Alda, and inside sources say Alda is willing to sign for another season, just as long as the program’s filming schedule can be worked around his suddenly booming career in movies.
Just imagine the fun Alda could have had if he wanted to string CBS and 20th Century Fox along. We’re lucky that power didn’t go to his head.
- Deeb, Gary. “‘M*A*S*H’ to Stay, but ‘Waltons’ to Fold.” Chicago Tribune. 16 Jan. 1980: A8.
- Deeb, Gary. “Tempo TV: The Troops May Come and Go, But ‘M*A*S*H’ Crew Carries On — Splendidly.” Chicago Tribune. 25 Jun. 1979: A10.